Toronto FC fans will be relieved in the aftermath of the US Men's National Team's 3-2 victory over Iceland on Sunday knowing that their two star Designated Players performed admirably and produced the bulk of the scoring.
The game played out in familiar fashion for Reds fans - while the US looked the better side, egregious defensive lapses kept Iceland in contention until the closing minutes, in which the US needed a dramatic scoring header off a Bradley set piece to grab the "W."
Certainly our boys are no strangers to carrying their team past poor defensive play - perhaps that experience, now second nature, even helped them remain focused for the full duration.
Let's take a closer look at how each Red's offseason performance is shaping up.
Much to the world's surprise, that really WAS Jozy on the pitch today, not his leaner, faster, stronger twin brother.
Altidore has reportedly lost 10 pounds and changed his diet as he doubles down on his focus for a healthy 2016 season. The sample size may be small, but so far, the results speak for themselves.
Before Jozy scored in the 20th minute he was already looking in-form. He lined up as 1 of 2 strikers in a 4-4-2 diamond formation alongside Gyasi Zardes, a significant change of pace from the usual lone striker approach the US traditionally uses him for.
While this experiment has oftentimes failed with TFC in the past alongside Sebastian Giovinco, on Sunday it worked like a charm. Jozy was all too happy to play the part of distributor as well as shot-taker, pairing especially well with the offbeat creativity of Ethan Finlay on a few near chances.
Altidore's goal came on a beauty of a short pass from Bradley that emphasized the ever-evolving chemistry the two share. The ball was pushed just behind the defensive line where only Altidore could easily make a move for it if he timed it perfectly. Well, he did just that and the finish was sublime, tucking the ball across his body and just over the keeper. In what should have been a horrendously awkward turn of the body, Altidore looked at ease. Bonus points: he was onside (and was only caught offside twice all day).
This sense of comfort defined the 70+ minutes Jozy spent on the pitch. He's often been the subject of criticism for not using his big striker frame to create more space up front. In this one, however, he successfully played all the roles: facilitator, creator, receiver, and striker all in one.
He wasn't perfect on the day, of course. He let loose an embarrassingly inaccurate low cross into the box that never had a prayer of success. He was also caught returning to the attack a bit slower than fans would like a few times - though, then again, he's still hyper-conscious of remaining healthy all year.
Still, in a match TFC fans would have simply appreciated some consistency and dependability, Jozy exceeded all expectations by proving integral to the team's ultimate success. Altidore finished with 2(1) shots (on goal), 1 goal, and nearly 1 assist, had Michael Orozco not put his head to the ball just before it crossed the goal.
What can be said of the double-captain that hasn't already been said?
Michael Bradley, of course, played like the deserved captain he is. He was confident, cool, and creative - equally responsible for the team's triumph as his Toronto partner-in-crime.
It wouldn't be a classic Bradley match without a losing of tempers, of course. Bradley was mid-argument with the referee when Iceland decided to take a kick quickly, pushing right into a series of defensive breakdowns, finishing with a plum of a goal from Aron Sigurdarson. After such dubious play continuation, you better believe Bradley had some more opinions on the matter to share with the ref.
Bradley otherwise wore the armband with pride and skill. As mentioned, it was his clever pass that setup Jozy's first goal. Perhaps less obvious on the play, however, was his intelligent run that created the play: Bradley, with total trust in the defending midfielders behind him, immediately pushed forward into a defensive soft spot as the ball was centralized and retained from a failed advance up the left wing. After a couple smart passes and a beautiful one-touch pass from Zardes, Bradley found himself in perfect position to setup a goal and... well... you know the rest.
Beyond that play, Bradley embraced the change in his midfield positioning at the top of the diamond, remaining close to the attacking action and only once or twice pulling all the way back to retrieve the ball (likely out of habit). He's become more and more natural in this role, still able to direct the action without forcing the advances himself.
The game winning goal - a confident header from Steve Birnbaum - was delivered in from the right side on a set piece by none other than Bradley himself in the 90th minute to seal the victory. After an otherwise ho-hum second half of youthful substitutions, the bit of end-game drama was a welcome development and well-earned by a US squad that mostly seemed to contain Iceland throughout, save for a few strong counters that gave Coach Jurgen Klinsmann some serious pause.
Ultimately, there was nothing but positives to see from our captain. Bradley finished the game with 1 shot and 2 assists.
What should we expect against Canada?
The big match on TFC fans' minds will be the all-North American friendly on Friday between USA and Canada.
WTR has already theorized on how this match will go - so what's changed after the Iceland game?
Well, not too much, though we can more safely predict that the USMNT will continue trying out some early-year experimentation to keep refining their formula.
The diamond formation was a change of pace for the US, but moreso was Klinsmann's eagerness to try out some of his lesser-used substitutes, like F Jerome Kiesewetter, and to give a platform to shine for burgeoning fan favourites F Jordan Morris and M Darlington Nagbe.
Nagbe didn't quite impress this round, but Morris managed 2 shots in his short time on the field. Now that they're both MLS Western Conference opponents, certainly the more time Altidore and Bradley can spend getting to know them, the better.
The propensity for Klinsmann to pull the rug out from any predictable expectations in this match coupled with the natural intensity from a cross-border rivalry like this should make USA vs Canada must-see TV late Friday night.
Stay tuned to WTR for more coverage of USA vs Canada as the match approaches